The vast quantity of historical material regarding the international order prior to the Second World War is staggering. It remains nearly impossible to add or detract from what has already been published. I say this with great reservation, for there are always new bits of information to assemble into the framework already constructed by historians.
There are really only three living authors that can grasp the depth of this vast structure, Ian Kershaw, George Luckas and Zara Steiner.
I mention Dr. Zara Steiner only because of her latest success in bringing this vast quantity of material to light for the common reader of history. In her latest book out from Oxford University Press titled “The Triumph Of The Dark: European International History 1933-1939” is simply stunning in its scope and breadth of presentation.
Her first volume examined the peace that existed, if only partially, from the end of the First World War. No one could anticipate the rise of a militant Hitler, no one could even think that there would be a second chapter to Somme. What she sets out to accomplish in her latest volume is how the international order broke down under Hitler; how the path to war simply became unavoidable. This book outlines the tragedy that became Germany.
Steiner has read and assembled just about everything of significance pertaining to this tragic conflict. Her canvas, like Germany, is unavoidably large. She understands that the rise of German militarism must coincide with other social, political conflicts emerging throughout the international order. We have the rise of American foreign policy, the confluence of ambivalence between realism and Wilsonian idealism under the failed League. The civilizational conflict that hampered the Far East, the international play between global empires and major mercantile cites of the Levant.
The heart of Steiner’s argument is laid out easily: with the arrival of Hitler in January of 1933, we have the emergence of a formidable gambler intent on getting even. Germany under Bismark was prostrate before the demonic. Although divided in their political allegiances, Germany harbored extreme resentment against their treatment in the international system. Germany despised its years of impoverishment and military insecurity arranged through Whitehall and Paris.
Hitler marks a decisive change in European international history, even though Germany was constricted and limited by both political and material realities, Hitler was obsessively driven by two ideological concerns: he wanted to carve out a racial empire for Germany to rule and in the process wage war against Jews. With Hitler, there was no going back to the 1920’s multilaterialism and disarmanment. With Hitler, we have an embodied ruthlessness that sought to subvert and destroy the post 1919 European order.
Decades after the destruction of the Third Reich, it is easy to see what drove the Social Democrats in Berlin and Bonn. Hitler’s foreign policy and racism did represent a clear longterm plan that was both reactive and opportunistic. Hitler had a clear set of objectives based on guileful opportunism occasionally circumscribed by powerbrokers in the international order.
Although difficult to constrain for the bibliophile or neurotic historian, Steiner’s central thesis is that Hitler deliberately sought war against the West in 1939. This is extremely difficult to examine for the professional historian given the total lack of archive materials. We have no files of correspondence, diaries, cabinet meetings to supply corroborating evidence. We have historical events, minutes of occasional meetings, post war interrogations of surviving colleagues and memoirs. Good enough for most readers, but not fitting for the specialized tenured radicals.
What inhibited France, Britain and for the most part America?
It was the fear of war that drove the radical drive for appeasement. German aggression must be seen within this domestic constraint. Ironically, German aggression coincides with Italian, Japanese and Chinese awakening, not to mention an expanding Soviet Empire rapidly arming and industrially expanding at a time that continually prevented any resurrection of a pre-1914 entente. It is Steiner that reveals to us Hitler’s thinking on these matters. Hitler was motivated by Stalin’s purge to move aggressively against the Slav. A fatal move. With Dr. Steiner, we finally arrive at the awakening of the Cold War, a militant lurking saboteur only itching to hit the fragile international order. This is the origin of the Cold War, not the aftermath with Yalta or Fulton Missouri.
Perhaps the most striking expose is with Chamberlain whose flawed judgement, primitive anti-Communism and fear of war weakened the Western response, divided Britain and France and only encouraged Hitler. Chamberlain reveals in his diaries that he found it most difficult to measure Hitler or to understand his political aspirations. Chamberlain simply refused to believe that anyone really wanted war again! Still, it must be remembered that Chamberlain oversaw British rearmament to a point where it menaced economic stability, he also made Hitler stand back from war in 1938. Chamberlain honestly and firmly believed that military measures could deter Hitler again in 1939. I think it only honest to examine that Chamberlain only reflected British sentiment. Finally, Chamberlain came around to grasp that war was the only instrument to secure a more durable peace. We must remember, it was Chamberlain that declared war on Hitler, not the other way around.
Where Steiner is brilliant is to finally recognize that Hitler was not the only aggressor: there was Japan throughout Asia, Italy in both Africa and the Mediterranean, the crisis of empire throughout the Near East, uncertainty about Soviet relations, the failure of the League, the crisis of capitalism within the social impact of progressive politics, and the Great Depression that ravaged America and most first world nations. Steiner examines the principal liberal power players throughout the international order and their relative relations throughout each crisis. How else to say it: Hitler was one of many emerging issues. He is a harbinger of a doom generated by a failed system. Mending that system was arguably beyond anyone, and fighting Hitler in ’36 or ’39 was not necessarily the answer to renovation or recovery.
The most complicated piece of this arch with Hitler is divining his tactics and strategy throughout late 1939. There are three historians who have written most effectively on this matter: Gerhard Weinberg, Adam Tooze and George Lukas. It is difficult to make sense of Hitler’s move to isolate Poland, divide the Western states, to buy off Britain, even to postpone invasion on August 26 from fear of Western intervention. Hitler gambled with himself on how he should hit the East having opted with war against the West in 1939. He cursed his failure to hold firm in September of 1938 to wage war on Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s thinking was more to the social and political effect of trying to confound the West, leaving their strategy in tatters and creating a springboard to the East. It was a risk fit for a gambler. Hitler’s unstable temperament rather than any clear vision made him run a risk that grew as time widened. What he misjudged was the realization in the West that war was now the only solution. Exactly why England and France declared war is a far more engaging question than why Hitler attacked Poland.
Why read ‘The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-1939”? Because it is a decade of European hegemony revealing a lost troubled Imperium destined to fail. It is a time to examine the last vestiges where European claims could honorably be challenged. It was evening for Empire. By 1940 these imperialisms were collapsing.
If Dr. Steiner’s first volume was to examine the optimism that underwrote the failed European order leading to the Great War, her second volume is examining how that very order finally collapsed.